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A CurtainUp London Review
The Woman in White
The first thing that you notice is the setting, not a set but a series of computer generated images recalling a great Victorian pile, a mansion set in generous grounds, the quintessential, English house and estate in the Lake District. These images fill the stage, a curved rotating screen seamlessly provides the means of one image segueing into another. The technology from William Dudley, who has already established his credentials with sets for the National Theatre and the award winning Hitchcock Blondeat the Royal Court, is impressive. But I have reservations. These graphics do not for me suspend disbelief. I am always aware that what I am watching is a picture and not the real thing. Yes, it looks like smog filled Victorian London, but you can't smell the acrid smoke, nor experience the drudgery of life in a city whose buildings are black with grime the way you can with an authentic theatrical set. The "Wow!" factor is missing. However, the succession of graphics means that there is always something different to watch so that if the music becomes monotonous at least the background is constantly changing. The steam trains thunder through the tunnel and into the audience and we are allowed into the Victorian lunatic asylum, we see the wedding in the church and teeter along the parapet of Glyde's Blackwater House with Marian Halcombe (Maria Friedman).
Musically Lloyd-Webber has often been criticised for being derivative. In The Woman in White he has taken a leaf out of Boublil and Schonburg's score for Les Misérables.. What is missing are the really good tunes. There is a love song, "I Believe My Heart", a strong duet which might be memorable after it has been heard a few times but which didn't linger on the night I attended. The other show stoppers are from Michael Crawford, whose Count Fosco character delivers his comic Gilbert and Sullivan type songs, "A Gift For Living Well" and "You Can Get Away With Anything". David Zippel's lyrics plod away at seven syllables to the line and only rarely strike a note of ingenuity.
Charlotte Jones has taken some liberties with the plot but this may be inevitable when novels are turned into musicals. For those who don't know Wilkie Collins' novel here is a summary of the plot without its denouement: Walter Hartright (Martin Crewes) takes a position as a drawing master to two women, nieces to Mr Fairlie (Edward Petherbridge) half sisters, Laura Fairlie (Jill Paice) and Marian Halcombe (Maria Friedman). On his way to their house, Walter meets a mysterious young woman dressed in white, Anne Catherick (Angela Christian), who talks of a secret. Later Anne tells Walter that Sir Percival Glyde (Oliver Darley) is an evil man. Walter and Laura, who looks remarkably like Anne Catherick, are attracted to each other but we are told that Laura is engaged to be married to the handsome and personable Glyde. Glyde's companion is the sinister doctor of medicine, Count Fosco (Michael Crawford). Laura and Glyde are married and Marian Halcombe sees that her sister is dreadfully unhappy. Anne Catherick is locked up in an insane asylum. Anne and Laura's fates seem entwined.
Trevor Nunn directs and he is as sound as ever, if not innovative. The choreography is rather limited to country type clog dancing from the Cumberland country locals with corn dollies and cheerful if criminal Cockneys in London. The principals are wonderful, really good singers and convincing in their role. Oliver Darley's Glyde is volatile and cruel, Angela Christian's Laura is sweet and innocent, Martin Crewes' Walter is sincere, handsome and loyal. Outstanding are Maria Friedman as the worthy Marian and Michael Crawford in a curious foam rubber double chin and black curly flat top wig as the flamboyant, rat fancier Fosco. When these two are onstage, the one leching after the other, the full comic possibilities are realised although this scene is of Charlotte Jones' making rather than the Wilkie Collins' original novel.
The Woman in White may not become the cash cow that Lloyd-Webber might have hoped for but his still loyal following should ensure she endures in the West End for a few years, but despite the first night audience accolades, I doubt there will be much of a market for the cd.
Mendes at the Donmar
Peter Ackroyd's History of London: The Biography
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co. Click image to buy.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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